My latest read was The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad by Fareed Zakaria. It is an incredibly interesting book that critiques pretty much the entire globe for forms of democracy that are not working. And, Zakaria provides lots of evidence for why each is flawed and how it might be improved.
The first point that Zakaria challenges is the belief that democracy is the entry point to prosperity. This belief is where many advocates of democratic reform begin - stir the people to elections, democracy will follow, and then prosperity and peace. The evidence tells a very different story - that moderate economic improvement (i.e. the creation of a middle class) results in a critical mass of empowered citizens who will eventually demand an accountable and effective government. Countries with too low a GDP can't muster the hope and possibility. Countries with too high a GDP are "trustfund" states where wealth creates a lethargy about asserting citizens' needs. So, economic improvement is the door to democracy when the GDP is modest, but not exorbitant.
Zakaria's second assertion is that democracy doesn't go from nothing to full-force without cultivation. For example, the British Empire invested in infrastructure among some of its colonies which then were able to sustain democracy after the British left. In those colonies where the Brits (and other colonial powers) left the public bereft of political will and means, governments slid precariously into their own monarchies or dictatorships. Had there been an investment in community building, and had colonial powers not saddled the new nations with borders fraught with ethnic and religious problems, perhaps the future of democracy in the post-colonial years would have been different.
And, "perhaps the future of democracy would have been different" brought the question of the future of freedom very close to home - to the Middle East. Many references are made throughout Zakaria's book to the challenges of the Middle East, and particularly of the Arabian Gulf oil-rich monarchies. The point he made was that little nation building took place after the colonial/protectorate governments left, leaving monarchs to rule in an environment of extreme wealth where the government could take care of pretty much anything the public might want. The Arabian Gulf has a number of benevolent monarchs who work hard to make their citizens comfortable and happy and the lack of need in luxury discourages democratic aspirations.
Not only is the Middle East critiqued. Asia, South America, Russia, and elsewhere are equally placed under the microscope. One of the most interesting warnings about the future of freedom is levied at the U.S.A. Zakaria warns of democracy gone wild in the U.S.A. as a result of leveling the playing field to the degree that only lobbyists and interest groups can impact public policy. The legislation by referendum that showered down on government after California's Proposition 13 resulted in heightened levels of direct influence by citizens. Professional politicians, rather than public servants, fill the conference rooms and voting chambers and every vote is public. "What has changed in Washington is not that politicians have closed themselves off from the American people and are unwilling to hear their pleas. It is that they do scarcely anything but listen to the American people." (p. 166) And to money, lobbyists, and special interests.
So, for the U.S.A., Zakaria recommends a period of reflection on legislative process, with attention to the inordinate power of special interest referenda, and getting back to building economic opportunity through education. By fostering prosperity that citizens themselves own, government would then be able to focus on the issues that are truly in the broader public's best interest rather than creating safety nets that reinforce dependency on the state.
In the chapter titled "The Way Out" Zakaria proposes that government in developing countries "must demonstrate deep commitment and discipline in their policies" and "must focus on the long-term with regard to urban development, education, and health care." Finally, a welcome sigh of relief came over me. Qatar is mentioned in several places as an example of a monarchy dedicated to developing capacity that will result in a growing middle class able to articulate its own needs and work with its government on the things that have the greatest potential to improve the quality of their lives. The form of government that will work best for Qatar has some elements that are democratic, and overtime these will likely increase, but Qatar's brand of democracy may not be the same that western countries expect.
Zakaria has far too many ideas to summarize in a post such as this. Suffice it to say that all areas of the world have their turn to face criticism. By doing so, the opportunities to confront illiberal democracy are enhanced to a level that we might even be able to make the core purposes of freedom and democracy work.